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Indradevi blends drum and bass, rock, and other genres with Khmer sounds. Supplied/John sax

Showcasing music from the diaspora

Khmer-influenced modern music from across the globe will be on show today at the Cambodian Music Festival in Southern California’s Orange County

A 1,000-strong crowd is expected to turn out today for the second annual Cambodian Music Festival (CMF) in California, a day-long performance intended to showcase global Khmer culture.

“We really want to stick to the mission of the festival, which is to unite artists from the Cambodian diaspora,” festival co-founder Seak Smith, who was born in a Thai refugee camp and raised in Los Angeles, said on Tuesday.

With two exceptions, the line-up at the festival is completely new this year. Artists, whose genres range from rap to drum and bass, have come to the Los Angeles-area festival from as far away as Greece to participate.

Participants from last year said the show set a new benchmark for Khmer-inspired cultural festivals.

The trio behind the electronic music act Indradevi, who don Balinese-inspired masks onstage and refuse to uncloak themselves in interviews, said the group wouldn’t be the act it is today without last year’s festival.

“It’s what forced us to become a band and not just guys producing beats in a studio – that took it to a level where it’s not just a live show, but a big, theatrical live show,” said Rangda who, like his band mates Barong and Rumany, declined to reveal his real name.

Only Rumany, whose family is from Kampong Cham, has shown her face onstage.

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The festival’s hosts last year demonstrate traditional Khmer dress. Supplied/Ohn sax

Their unique blend of drum and bass, hip-hop, rock and melodic singing put to the backdrop of Southeast Asian sounds has made their music difficult to market, added Barong.

Such innovations to Khmer music, said Smith, are a driving motivation for the show.

“Even here in the US, the Cambodian music scene is very stagnant – all you get in the greater Long Beach area is the karaoke singers and carbon copies of the old music,” she said, alluding to bands that focus on covers of Khmer rock from the 1960s and 70s.

“We all love music from that era,” she said, adding that her father was a drummer in pre-Khmer Rouge Cambodia.

The old rock tunes, she said, comprised the “soundtrack” of her childhood.

“But it really is hard to be taken seriously when you attempt to do music in any part of the world when you’re not creating your own original music.”

The silver lining to be found in the forced emigration of Cambodians in the wake of the Pol Pot regime, said Smith, was the musical influences that they discovered upon arriving in their new homes.

The African-American experience in impoverished urban communities, Smith added, particularly resonated with the young immigrants.

“I grew up in the housing projects of Los Angeles, and that’s where the parallel happens … our struggles are very similar to the black struggle,” said Smith, whose husband Brian, who co-founded the festival, is African American.

But it’s not just Khmer artists who have been invited.

While the performers are mostly Cambodian emigres, the line-up is also to include African-American artist Michael Jamal “EVRYWHR” Jefferson and Englishman Grant “Gobshite” Massey.

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Rapper Grant ‘Gobshite’ Massey on the set of a music video last year in Phnom Penh. Bennett Murray

“It intrigues me to see those who are not Cambodian embracing and gravitating toward Cambodian culture and music,” said Smith, adding that she welcomed participants from all ethnic backgrounds provided they shared a love for Khmer culture.

Rapper Massey, who lived in Cambodia for five years before relocating to Greece in 2014, said he was “absolutely flattered” to have been invited to perform at CMF this year.

“Khmer creativity is something I really appreciate and fell in love with when I first moved to Cambodia – it’s something that has had an influence on me, and will continue to until I stop making music,” he said, adding that his performance at CMF will include the Khmer lyrics he wrote in Cambodia.

“There are Khmer artists who probably should have been invited over me, but for whatever the reason, they wanted me to go, so I’m not going to turn them down.”

His dream, he added, is to see young Cambodians back in the Kingdom carry on the creative spirit of the festival.

“I want to see young Khmer lads expressing themselves through their music, especially people who are unheard on the margins of society.”

Smith said with some luck, next year’s CMF may be held in her homeland, though finding sponsors and logistical support will likely prove challenging.

“We want to show the Cambodian audience that despite what happened and Cambodians being dispersed all over the world, they can look at all this amazing talent coming out of France, coming out of Montreal, coming out of Australia,” she said.

“Cambodians come from a very rich history of music and art, and we definitely want to highlight that and show Cambodians back in Cambodia that despite the tragedy of the war and the genocide, and the splitting up of people all over the world, here’s some of the beauty that came out of that.”

The festivals opens at 2pm on Saturday (PDT) at the Pearson Park Amphitheatre in Anaheim. Tickets are $75 at the door, and seating will be on a first come, first served basis. Food trucks providing authentic Khmer cuisine will service the event.

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